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The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness

  • Mary A. Kassian Girls Gone Wise
  • 2010 5 May
  • COMMENTS
The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness

Why are women so unhappy?

In 1963, Journalist and political activist Betty Friedan published a book that was the catalyst behind the women's movement in the United States. It was the book that "pulled the trigger on history." Friedan had conducted a questionnaire with the women gathered at her 15 year college reunion. She concluded that although these women were doing everything that society said would bring them happiness - that is, getting and staying married, staying home to raise kids, cooking meals and cleaning house, homemaking and home decorating, volunteering - that there were hints of dissatisfaction lingering beneath the surface of their picture-perfect lives. Her question was, "Why are women so unhappy?"

Friedan called the unhappiness of women "the problem that has no name." She pointed her finger at the male-female relationship and theorized that it was to blame. If only woman could leave the traditional role of homemaker behind, be educated and participate in the workplace on the same basis as man, be free to express herself sexually without any restraints, and have society free her from the burden of bearing and caring for children, THEN she would be happy. If woman could dictate the rules, then she and the whole of society would be much better off … and woman's unhappiness would fade like a garishly patterned cotton drape under the touch of the summer sun.

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and brownies, lay beside her husband at night - she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question - "Is this all?"…

If I am right, the problem that has no name stirring in the minds of so many American women today is not a matter of loss of femininity or too much education, or the demands of domesticity. It is far more important than anyone recognizes. It is the key to these other new and old problems which have been torturing women and their husbands and children, and puzzling their doctors and educators for years. It may well be the key to our future as a nation and a culture. We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: "I want something more than my husband and my children and my home."

[Women must] stretch and stretch until their own efforts will tell them who they are. They will not need the regard of boy or man to feel alive. And when women do not need to live through their husbands and children… this may be the next step in human evolution.

Who know what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?… It has barely begun, the search of women for themselves. But the time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete.

Betty Friedan, 1963

All of Friedan's goals for women have been achieved. As Susan Etheridge, for the New York Times notes, "American women are wealthier, healthier and better educated than they were at that time. They're more likely to work outside the home, and more likely to earn salaries comparable to men's when they do. They can leave abusive marriages and sue sexist employers. They enjoy unprecedented control over their own fertility. On some fronts - graduation rates, life expectancy and even job security - men look increasingly like the second sex."

But ironically, feminism's quest for women's happiness has only resulted in a greater level of unhappiness for women. In the sixties, when Betty Friedan diagnosed her fellow wives and daughters as the victims of "the problem with no name," American women reported themselves happier, on average, than did men. Today, that statistic has reversed. Male happiness has inched up, while female happiness has declined. In postfeminist America, men are happier than women.

This is "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," the subject of a provocative paper published earlier this month by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. The authors are perplexed about the incongruity between how much women's lives have objectively improved, and how happy they subjectively feel. :

By most objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved dramatically over the past 35 years. Moreover, women believe that their lives are better; in recent polls asking about changes in the status of women over the past 25 or 50 years, around four in five adults state that the overall status of women in the U.S. has gotten better…. Additionally, the 1999 Virginia Slims Poll found that 72% of women believe that "women having more choices in society today gives women more opportunities to be happy" while only 39% thought that having more choices "makes life more complicated for women." Finally, women today are more likely than men to believe that their opportunities to succeed exceed those of their parents.

Yet trends in self-reported subjective well-being indicate that happiness has shifted toward men and away from women. … This finding of a decline in women's well-being relative to that of men raises questions about whether modern social constructs have made women worse off… Rather than immediately inferring that the women's movement failed to improve the lot of women, we conclude with … alternative explanations of this paradox.

The authors begrudgingly admit that feminism could have something to do with the declining rates of happiness for women: "The changes brought about through the women's movement may have decreased women's happiness." But they argue that this is only because " The increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions may have led to an increased likelihood of believing that one's life is not measuring up…Or women may simply find the complexity and increased pressure in their modern lives to have come at the cost of happiness." They also propose that women may now feel more comfortable being honest about their true happiness and have thus deflated their previously inflated responses. Or, that the increased opportunities available to women may have increased what women require to declare themselves happy.

In the end, they just scratch their heads about the whole thing. They can't understand why feminism didn't deliver the happiness it promised. It pumped its best medicine into woman's veins, but somehow, it just exacerbated the disease.

C.S. Lewis once said, "What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring." Feminism's attempt to increase the happiness of woman by having woman control and dictate the terms of her own happiness was doomed to fail.

"God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about His ways. God cannot give us a happiness and peace aprt from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing."  (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

Women can "stretch and stretch," but their own efforts will never "tell them who they are." The real paradox about female happiness is that though she might try, woman will never be able to make herself happy. Nor will men make woman happy. Nor will children, career, prominence, possessions, lifestyle…nor anything else that woman might strive after. Apart from a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ as the rock-solid foundation of joy, woman will never find what she is looking for.  Without a vibrant personal relationship with Christ, she will forever ask herself Friedan's painful silent question - "Is this all?"

Reprinted with permission from GirlsGoneWise.com. Originally posted May 27, 2009.

© Mary A. Kassian, Girls Gone Wise. Visit Mary's Website at: GirlsGoneWise.com

Mary Kassian is author of several Lifeway Bible Studies. She and her husband Brent have mastered the art of cheering after spending countless hours watching their sons play ice hockey and volleyball. The Kassian clan and their pets, Miss Kitty and black lab, General Beau, live in Western Canada.